The US Supreme Court overturned a longstanding campaign finance restriction on aggregate contributions by individuals. In a holding that tracked the Court's earlier ruling in Citizens United, today's 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission eliminated the biennial contribution limits for individuals to federal candidates, party committees and PACs. While the ruling left in place the existing limits on the amount an individual can give to any one candidate, today's ruling represents a further expansion of the role of individual donors in federal campaigns.
Prior to today's 5-4 decision in McCutcheon, no individual could contribute more than a total of $48,600 to individual candidate committees, or more than $74,600 to political action committees (PACs) and political party committees during a two-year election cycle. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, an individual donor may now contribute to as many federal candidates, PACs, and committees as the individual desires, subject to the contribution limits applicable to the recipient of such contribution (known as "base" contribution limits).1
The Supreme Court decision overturns an order by the US District Court for the District of Columbia granting the Government's motion to dismiss. Chief Justice Roberts' opinion (joined by Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito) declares that Congress may not "regulate [campaign] contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics" or "restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others." The aggregate limits on contributions does not address the permissible regulatory objective of combatting corruption (as evidenced by "quid pro quo" corruption) and is thus invalid under the First Amendment. In his concurrence in the court's decision, Justice Thomas said that the court should have overruled its decision in Buckley v. Valeo and applied a "strict scrutiny" test to determining the constitutionality of the aggregate limits.
Justice Breyer and the other dissenting Justices (Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) sharply criticized the court's decision, calling the majority's approach one that "…substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform."
The political response to today's ruling again broke largely along party lines - with traditional opponents of campaign finance restrictions, including US Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praising the decision while President Barack Obama and Congressional democrats expressed their disappointment with a perceived weakening of longstanding principles of campaign finance law. The public and political debate over today's ruling echoed those first highlighted in the wake of the Court's landmark Citizens Uniteddecision in 2010, which set the stage for unlimited Super PAC money and independent expenditures by both corporations and individuals.
It is unclear what the ultimate impact will be from this campaign finance ruling by the Supreme Court as the court did not overturn individual campaign contribution limits. This holding, however, will provide a further opportunity for individuals to contribute broadly to campaigns and political party committees, which in turn will be able to raise and make contributions to an unlimited number of other federal political committees. Politically-active wealthy donors will have another legally-sanctioned opportunity to contribute far more substantial amounts of money in connection with federal elections -- which given that 2014 mid-term campaigns are already underway has even greater impact.